Building boats with your own hands is truly rewarding

The warm and cozy smell of wood draws you in immediately when entering the boat shop at the Alexandria Seaport. It is a place where 19th-century boats like “The Whitehall” are being restored with almost affectionate love for detail.

“You have to get inventive”, Larry, one of the boat makers explains. “We can replace the wooden parts but it’s tricky to restore the metal details on a boat that old”. The Whitehall was one of the leading row boats in 19th-century Europe and at the time, was also used by watertaxi operators on the Thames in London.

The small but busy boat shop pulls you into an era when commercial fishing was still an adventure like in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. Right behind the shop sits an old whaleboat just like the one, Captain Ahab was using in his treacherous pursuit of the great white whale.

boatmaking3  “It’s about seeing the result of your own hands’ work”, Gary says. He started as a boat builder at the shop about a year ago after retiring from a university teaching position as a chemical engineer. “I used to deal with a lot of people and many times, things just didn’t get done. Now, I can get things done.”

It took him and about 4 others several months to restore a historic whaleboat now moored right in the back of the shop. “You build a wooden backbone first, then a rib frame just like in a human body”, Larry explains. Oak is perfect for the boat’s skeleton, softer cedar wood that has been steam-bent and air-dried works best for the body.

“I still remember when we finally put that whaleboat in the water”, Larry says with a sparkle of excitement in his eyes. “I used to work as a manager for a corporation, it was a desk job and I liked it but seeing a boat you built with your own hands actually being released in the water is truly rewarding! ”

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He and Gary work at the boat shop 4 days a week. It is volunteer work and they love it because it is a place of honest, physical labor without the distraction of modern day smart phones, endless meetings or a constant flow of emails. It’s a place where life slows down and becomes real.

In addition to restoring antique boats, the volunteer ship builders here also give back to society. The shop offers an apprentice program for disadvantaged youth. The Alexandria Seaport Foundation helps young adults at risk of failing in school or in their life to find direction and purpose through learning carpentry skills and boat building.

For more information visit: The Alexandria Seaport Foundation

We are playing Russian Roulette

When talking to Columbia University professor Klaus Jacob you are eerily reminded of Dennis Quaid’s desperate quest in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” trying to convince political leaders of the urgency of dealing with the threat of global climate change.

“Hurricane Irene should have been a wake-up call not to continue playing Russian roulette but apparently, it needed a larger hurricane like Sandy.” For Klaus Jacob, the devastating impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns is very personal.

Dr. Klaus Jacob Photo courtesy: Klaus Jacob

The scientist from Lamont-Doherty Observatory lives just minutes away from campus on Piermont’s Paradise Avenue, a picturesque road with spectacular vistas on the Hudson River. But the breathtaking views came with an expensive price tag.

“On the famous night of Sandy visiting us, she knocked on the door and left a mark here”, Klaus Jacob explains pointing at a line he marked on the first floor. “The water was shoulder-high which means everything here inside was of course flooded”.

Klaus Jacob had no flood insurance because when he bought the property years ago, he raised the whole building in order to make it flood-safe. ”Since I am a scientist, I know about probability and so I talked myself into accepting that risk but I knew it could happen.”

Already in 2011, Klaus Jacob and a team of fellow climate risk researchers published a report warning New York City officials of the devastating effects of a strong hurricane on Manhattan and all surrounding low-lying coastal areas.

hurricanesandy2 Jersey shore, destruction left by Hurricane Sandy

“It’s a game of Russian roulette”, he already said back then. “It could happen tomorrow, it can happen in 10 years or in 30 years, that’s exactly the problem. And that is why perhaps folks don’t fully comprehend this situation and feel they have time.”

They did not. What’s more, Klaus Jacob underscores that New York today is as vulnerable as before because of a lack of speedy implementation of time- and money-intensive engineered changes. ”We told them in our report two years before Sandy that this is exactly what will happen, so nobody can say they didn’t know – nobody wanted to know.”

For now, Klaus Jacob will try to adjust to the risk of repeated floods at his own house. Raising the building even higher would be too costly, selling it is out of the question. Heating and other essentials had already been moved to the upper floors when he bought the house, but now he has ‘wet proved’ his first floor to accommodate the next flood to the extent possible.

At the same time, he just won’t stop talking about the risks of global climate change. Because it is personal, not just to him but to all New Yorkers and so many other coastal residents around the world.  Via a task force appointed by the local mayor, he is now helping his village to reduce Piermont’s future flood risks from rising sea levels and storms.

“One would hope and if any rationality exists in politics, then one would say: Of course, many have to move and finally come to grips with realities.” When Klaus Jacob talks, he almost appears to be a crusader on a mission. “It’s this combination of materialistic self-interest and not caring about future generations that will come to haunt us for many decades and centuries to come.”

It’s so cool to do what you really love

A lot of of the kids Bart van Melik works with have been told by their parents, teachers or caretakers “you got to relax”, except for, they don’t know how to do that, how to really relax their body and mind.

For the last five years, Bart has taught yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice to children with behavioral problems. He regularly visits juvenile detention centers, shelters for young adults who just came out of foster care or kids that have been suspended from high school.

Some of his yoga and meditation students have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others bring the pain from growing up in broken homes right into class. He often faces doubtful resistance “I’m too big for this, I can’t do these movements”. Or he simply has to overcome opposition, especially in youth detention facilities, that yoga just isn’t for real men.

But sooner or later, most of his students understand that Bart’s yoga and meditation classes allow them to relax and relate differently to stress and aggression.

“It helps them to practice being aware of one’s own actions and the results of one’s actions. So for instance, I had one participant coming back and the week before we did a class on anger, how to notice anger and what we can do just before we are about to lash out. And this young gentleman said, I really wanted to hit somebody but I paused.”

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Bart teaches 10 classes a week for the Lineage Project, a non-profit organization that collaborates with the New York City Board of Education offering yoga and meditation classes to a broad spectrum of challenged youth. He has not only taught downward-facing-dog to about 1,000 kids but more importantly has helped them to face and unwind emotional challenges.

“Sometimes, the kids ask difficult questions”, Bart explains. “One kid told me: I’m sad and I think meditation and yoga are not for me. Because if I don’t do it, I don’t feel so sad.” While many kids in the yoga program also see psychotherapists, they still sometimes bring their emotional wounds to class.

“The power of the practice is, to become familiar with the painful emotion until it loses its power over us.” For Bart, it doesn’t matter if his students had to face trouble in their families, schools or social environment. Learning how to skillfully handle yourself and to be more at ease is for everyone.

Every class includes a short discussion helping the kids to realize that they are not alone with their anger, jealousy or pain. Once the students understand that their issues are universal, it becomes easier for them to respond to others more compassionately.

Bart is soft-spoken and conveys a convincing clarity leaving little doubt that he profoundly impacts his students’ life. For him, there are no hopeless cases.

He moved to the United States from Holland where he already worked with challenged youth. “I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s more like playing music.”

He doesn’t get burned out on his job because each and every class he receives positive energy back from his students. “I have found my aspiration”, Bart says. “It’s so cool to do what you really love – I wish that to everybody.”

For more information about the Lineage Project visit: www.lineageproject.org

I will never touch a weapon again

It was Friday after Thanksgiving on my way home from work when I sat down in a Path train crowded with Black Friday shoppers and a man next to me wearing an army vet’s baseball hat. It quickly occurred to me that he wasn’t a native New Yorker since he seemed quite irritated about a woman cutting him off struggling for a seat on the packed train. He was just too polite for living in New York City.

I asked him where he was from. As it turned out, he was born in North Carolina but had spent the last 11 months at the VA hospital in New York. Doctors there had tried to patch him back together after he and several others of his fellow soldiers had been hit by a roadside bomb somewhere in Afghanistan.

He showed me an at least 7-inch-long scar running right down at the front of his throat and another one on his right shoulder. “There’s not much bone left in this shoulder”, he said. He told me that his pelvic area had been badly wounded as well and that he was in constant pain but didn’t want to take any medication because he was worried about getting addicted to it. “I’ve never taken any drugs, I don’t smoke and don’t drink – I’m not going to start now.”

But what was far worse than his physical injuries were his psychological wounds. His soul had been broken. He told me, that he had not slept through the night in months. No matter if awake or asleep the same eerie pictures of the roadside bomb blowing up himself and his fellow soldiers keep haunting him. Looking at the drops of sweat on his forehead, I could tell that he was replaying right before his eyes the bloody scene of deadly violence as we were speaking.

He had trouble breathing, he apologized for telling me what he was going through, I kept listening. I asked him if he was receiving psychotherapy treatment and he said that it would consist mainly of a doctor prescribing antidepressants which he didn’t want to take because he didn’t want “to turn his brain into a sponge”.

“Sometimes, I can force myself to sleep”, he said “at least for an hour or two”. He had done so the night before and had experienced such intense nightmares that he severely bit into his own tongue.

He was shaking, struck by an anxiety attack yet still offered another female passenger his place to sit. She reluctantly took his seat but decided it would be easier not to refuse so she wouldn’t get pulled into this man’s despair.

His distress was obvious, so was his army veteran status as his hat was clearly visible, but nobody on the train wanted to get involved. People tried to awkwardly ignore the scene.

He continued by telling me how he had rescued 3 of his platoon comrades despite the fact that he had been injured himself. “But I could not rescue them all, I had to leave some of them behind”, he said. “Every day, I keep blaming myself, that I was unable to rescue them all.”

“I used to enjoy to try out new restaurants”, he said initially seemingly out of context. “But now, I always have to sit with my back right against the wall because I have these anxieties I might get attacked from behind. I won’t touch a weapon ever again, it doesn’t do any good.”

He thanked me for listening, then explained to me how he had been a role model for his fellow soldiers motivating them to join him at the gym or in the chapel for prayer.

As it turned out, he has 2 adult children but doesn’t want to be a burden. His wife left him while he was treated in the hospital for months. “I may go back to North Carolina next week, he said, if the doctors let me”, but he didn’t seem quite to believe in it himself and he started to cry, right there, in a crowded New York subway.

He was lost, in a big city that wasn’t his home, in a body that was full of pain and with a soul that had been broken after tours in Somalia, Iraq and and a sheer endless war in Afghanistan. After more than 20 years in the Army, he was finished, spit out back into society with no real place to go.

It is easy, to read about PTSD, it is a whole different story to stare it right in its tormented face.

“You know, I used to be a paratrooper, I used to jump out of airplanes. It was scary each and every time, but I loved it because I served my country.”

And then he added: “I wish I could join my guys, the ones that didn’t make it, the ones, I did not rescue. But I guess, I have to keep going, one step at a time.”

An opportunity to turn your life around

“If you want to do something the question is not whether you can do it, the question is whether you want to put enough energy into it, how much interest you really have in something”, Ray Tebout explains with a tone of deep conviction.

That is what he has been telling a lot of his clients for the past 7 years. As the director of counseling for the non-profit The College Initiative, he has advised almost 1,000 men and women how to obtain a university degree. A wall full of photographs paying tribute to the success stories is the center piece of his office.

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“They have earned it,” he says. “They worked hard to overcome challenges, they deserve an opportunity because this is what we do in this country, we award people for their hard work.”

Many times, however, on their way to the finish line these graduates ran into barriers because Ray’s clients have a criminal record. “It’s emotionally trying, sometimes really discouraging.”

They have not only served time in prison. Most of them grew up in crime-infested neighborhoods. With Ray’s help and a lot of personal discipline, they managed to turn their lives around. However, when they apply for a job the moment employers run a criminal background check, it’s all over. “It’s like they have their conviction written on their forehead.”

Ray has a bachelor’s degree in transitional counseling psychology and is currently applying for a master’s in business administration. He feels his clients’ frustration like his own.

He spent 11 years in prison himself. “I was there from 18 to 29, essentially, I grew up in prison. I had to transform into manhood in the prison system which is not necessarily conducive to growing up being a healthy adult.”

Ray was a gang member, committed his first crime around the age of 14. His father was a drug addict, his neighborhood was dominated by violence. He ended up in a group home which in his own words was a training ground for prison. “I was defiant, I didn’t want to hear anything from anybody. I didn’t  want to behave because that meant conforming to a system that from what I could tell, didn’t have my best interest at heart.”

Until one day in prison he got a wake-up call.  He received a letter from his grandmother in shaky handwriting saying: “I’ve never seen you as a man. I’d like you to come home and be a responsible man.”

That letter did not change him overnight, but it made him think. He started to attend and later run educational prison programs. He studied law in the prison library.

Once released from prison, he went to culinary school and later, while always working to make ends meet, earned a bachelor’s degree in transitional counseling psychology and economic empowerment  from CUNY John Jay College. He financed his studies by taking out student loans and a scholarship.

Now, years later, he wants to open doors for guys like himself. “They have the skills, I want to remove the barriers.”

“You know, some people have said to me after learning about my criminal record: You don’t sound like one of them.” He laughs, wondering what that’s supposed to mean.

It’s not about supporting someone who just wants a free ride. Ray wants to bridge opportunity gaps. It’s about building future contributors to society.

After obtaining a degree in business administration, he is planning to start his own company to help college graduates with a criminal record to enter corporate America.

To find out more about how the College Initiative is helping former inmates to find their way from prison to college visit: www.collegeinitiative.org

Growing seeds of hope in the South Bronx

Stephen Ritz calls himself “the luckiest man on the planet” – just a few years ago, some people thought he was crazy. The special ed teacher was born in the South Bronx, has lived there all his life, over the years, saw his neighborhood turn into the poorest congressional district in America.

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He witnessed how many of his students were struggling with broken families, drugs, violence with some of them ending up in the criminal justice system. As social structures broke down, so did wholesome nutritional habits. And one day, he decided to act. He started to grow vegetables with his students as a way to grow seeds of hope.

“When you plant seeds, they grow. So I consider students to be seeds and we’re planting seeds of opportunities, we’re planting minds and along the way we’re generating outrageous outcomes: School attendance, weight loss, academic performance, so that’s incredible.”

What started out as a small classroom project has by now turned into the Bronx Green Machine, a non-profit group with 15 indoor and outdoor gardening sites involving hundreds of students. “People thought I was crazy, but 30,000 pounds of vegetables later, my favorite crops are organically grown citizens, kids who are earning living wages and are going to college – that to me is only aspirational.”

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Stephen’s passion for growing healthy food in the midst of what he calls “a food desert” full of fast food joints is contagious. The charismatic teacher has inspired kids who initially didn’t believe in his mission, who thought that growing veggies wasn’t cool – until they realized that first planting and later eating healthy food made them actually feel good.

“All of my kids need some tender loving care and some good nurturing. This is the complete package, it’s a very loving, nurturing environment.”

As a result, Stephen’s students get to see things grow and in the process grow up themselves. “It’s really about making kids who are apart from to becoming  a part of in ways that benefit all of society. Because it is easier to raise healthy kids than to fix broken men”.

For Stephen, it is about instilling productive behavior, instilling work ethic and healthy eating habits. He teaches his kids not only how to grow salad and vegetables but also talks with them about nutritional benefits and how to cook healthy meals.

Stephen hardly ever takes a day off from work because he loves what he does. He hopes to export his project to other cities around the US.

“Nothing makes me feel better. I feel the kids are my seeds, the plants are my seeds and we are a harvest hoping to cultivate minds across the Bronx.”

To find out more about the Bronx Green Machine watch Stephen Ritz giving a TED Talk about his program: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RF6qTlgtHU0

I have dedicated my life to making sick children laugh

When Karen McCarty looks up from the computer, she faces a life-size moose head with a red clown nose on the wall across her desk. She says that everybody should be able to not take themselves so seriously all the time, then falls into a contagious, heartfelt laugh.

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For 25 years, Karen has been a clown with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. She has dedicated her life to as she puts it, seeing the healthy part in a sick child and taking away physical and emotional pain by bringing clownish silliness right to a hospital bed.

“When you have a parent say: This is the first time, I’ve seen my kid smile in months – it doesn’t get any better than that. Then you know, you’ve made a difference.”

For Karen, bringing fun into a hospital room is very personal. As a childhood cancer survivor she understands that once you are diagnosed, no one treats you the same. “It’s understandable, it’s a very serious thing,” she remembers, “but as a child, you just want to be silly, play fun games and be a kid.”

After winning her own fight against cancer, Karen decided to go into show business. Influenced by her singer and comedian grandmother, she attended the prestigious clown and acting school L’ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

When she finally got involved with the Clown Care program in New York, she realized that being a hospital clown was what she was supposed to do with her life. It just made sense right away.

“It’s tough, but the joys outweigh the sorrows”, she says. “The clowns are my heroes, what they go through is an amazing emotional willingness you have to bring into this work.” After decades of engaging in Big Apple Circus Clown Care, Karen is now the program’s creative director. Her organization serves children in 14 pediatric facilities throughout the US making more than 200,000 hospital visits annually.

“You never become completely de-sensitized. But what we say is, we engage the healthy part of a child. You’re not all sick and when we see the healthy part, it’s the same as playing with any child. It’s so important to engage that healthy part because that’s what helps you to get better”.

When Karen talks about her work, vibrancy and excitement immediately fill the room. “We get so much out of it. It is so incredibly rewarding. It’s fantastic to be able to make everybody laugh, not just he kids also the parents, the doctors, the hospital staff.”

One of Karen’s clown acts is playing “Ginger Snaps”, after a nickname her dad gave her when she was about 5 years old. It’s a clown with big bunny teeth, overconfident who gets away with things by saying “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

KarenMcCarty photo credit: Big Apple Circus

Karen has seen children die and the clowns attend monthly closed group session to deal with their own emotional pain. But what keeps them going is distracting children from their pain.

“Sometimes it’s just a glimmer in their eyes; sometimes it’s just being able to watch us laugh and be silly and crazy because they don’t have the strength to do that. It is so incredible.”

To find out more about the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program visit: www.bigapplecircus.org/clown-care